James Dickey Essay - Dickey, James (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Dickey, James (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

James Dickey 1923-1997

(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.

A prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Dickey is best known for his intense exploration of the primal, irrational, creative, and ordering forces in life. Often classified as a visionary Romantic in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke, Dickey emphasized the primacy of imagination and examined the relationship between humanity and nature. He frequently described confrontations in war, sports, and nature as a means for probing violence, mortality, creativity, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode that features energetic rhythms and charged emotions.

Biographical Information

Dickey was born February 2, 1923, in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. In 1942 he attended Clemson College, but left to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. During World War II, he logged nearly 500 combat hours, serving in the South Pacific. After the war, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with his B.A. in 1949, and earning his M.A. in 1950. In 1956 Dickey, then a successful advertising copywriter and executive, cultivated a friendship with Ezra Pound, whose essays on poetry were to have a considerable influence on Dickey's image-centered approach to poetry. During the 1960s, Dickey won wide acclaim and several major literary awards for his poetry. He also was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He continued to be active during the 1980s and 1990s, teaching until five days before his death January 19, 1997.

Major Works

Dickey's poetry was often inspired by crucial events in his own life. His early poetry, for example, is infused with guilt over his role as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In his first three volumes of verse—Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964)—Dickey explores such topics as war, family, love, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival. These poems are generally arranged in traditional stanzaic units and are marked by an expansive tone. These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stresses the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believes are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won a National Book Award, signaled a shift in Dickey's verse to freer, more complex forms. Employing internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtler rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice investigates human suffering in its myriad forms.

Throughout his later poetry, Dickey laments the loss of youth, expresses a profound fear of mortality, and explores visionary qualities and creative energies. This verse evidences a more self-reflexive voice and an increasingly restrained, meditative style. He also began to employ what he termed “country surrealism,” a technique by which he obscures distinctions between dreams and reality to accommodate the irrational. For example, “The Zodiac” is a long, self-referential poem about an intensely visionary alcoholic artist who has difficulty distinguishing between illusion and reality. The title poem of The Strength of the Fields (1979), which Dickey read at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration, affirms faith in humanity while addressing various human dilemmas.

In Deliverance (1970), which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterates several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. The novel describes four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. They encounter natural threats and human violence, forcing them to rely on primitive instincts in order to survive. Dickey's second novel, Alnilam (1987), is an ambitious, experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. His last novel, To the White Sea (1993), is the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II. In addition to his writing, Dickey also is an esteemed poetry critic. In such volumes of essays and journals as Babel to Byzantium (1968), Self-Interviews (1970), Sorties (1971), and Crux (1999), he offers subjective viewpoints of poetry and asserts his preference for artistic intensity and intuition.

Critical Reception

Dickey is considered one of the major figures in American literature during the latter half of the twentieth century. Lauded as a significant American poet, he might be the most frequently discussed poet of his generation. Much has been written about Dickey's controversial public persona and pursuit of celebrity, and the ways in which his legendary personality affected his work and literary reputation. The role of his Southern heritage is also a rich area of critical discussion, as several reviewers have explored Dickey's place within the pantheon of Southern poets. Another area of debate has been Dickey's interest in primitivism, the concept that civilized man should maintain contact with nature, sensations, and primal impulses often suppressed by modern society. This theme was viewed as a recurring one in Dickey's oeuvre and was embodied in the best-selling novel, Deliverance.

Principal Works

Into the Stone, and Other Poems (poetry) 1960

Drowning with Others (poetry) 1962

Helmets (poetry) 1964

The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964

Two Poems of the Air (poetry) 1964

Buckdancer's Choice (poetry) 1965

Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968

Poems, 1957-1967 (poetry) 1968

Deliverance (novel) 1970

The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (poetry) 1970

Self-Interviews (monologues) 1970

Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971

Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978

The Strength of Fields (poetry) 1979

Scion (poetry) 1980

Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981

Puella (poetry) 1982

The Central Motion (poetry) 1983

Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (poetry, essays, and interviews) 1983

Alnilam (novel) 1987

The Eagle's Mile (poetry) 1990

The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (poetry) 1992

To the White Sea (novel) 1993

Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey (notebooks) 1996

James Dickey: Selected Poems (poetry) 1998

Crux: The Letters of James Dickey (correspondence) 1999

The James Dickey Reader (poetry, essays, monologues, and criticism) 1999

Criticism

Wendell Berry (review date November 1964)

SOURCE: Berry, Wendell. “James Dickey's New Book.” Poetry 105 (November 1964): 130-31.

[In the following review, Berry describes some of the poems in Helmets as clumsy and mechanical.]

Going into this book [Helmets] is like going into an experience in your own life that you know will change your mind. You either go in willing to let it happen, or you stay out. There are a lot of good poems here. “The Dusk of Horses,” “Fence Wire,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” “The Ice Skin, Drinking from a Helmet,” and “Bums, on Waking” aren't the only poems I thought moving and good, but they are the ones I keep the firmest, clearest memory of.

Thinking just of the poems I've named, I realize to what an extent sympathy is the burden of this book, how much there is of seeing into the life of beings other than the poet. The reader is moved imaginatively and sympathetically into the minds of horses at nightfall, of farmer and animals divided and held together by fences, of a young girl scarred in a wreck, of bums waking up in places they never intended to come to.

“Drinking from a Helmet” represents not the fact of sympathy, but the making of it. The poet moves from his own isolated experience of war into an almost mystical realization (and assumption) of the life of the dead soldier from whose helmet he drinks. A tense balance is held between the felt bigness of the war and the experience of the one young...

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William C. Strange (essay date fall-winter 1965-1966)

SOURCE: Strange, William C. “To Dream, To Remember: James Dickey's Buckdancer's Choice.Northwest Review 7, no. 2 (fall-winter 1965-1966): 33-42.

[In the following essay, Strange identifies dream and memory as the main thematic concerns of the poems comprising Buckdancer's Choice.]

Dream, memory, and poem are an ancient knot in a web of tempting correspondencies: image and event, possibility and necessity, wish and commandment, future and past. At one time or another and in various measure, all of these pairs have been used to explain that tense presence which is a poem, and they are still useful, permitting one to describe handily the tendency of modern...

(The entire section is 3753 words.)

Paul Carroll (review date November 1968)

SOURCE: Carroll, Paul. “James Dickey as Critic.” Chicago Review 20 (November 1968): 82-7.

[In the following favorable review of Babel to Byzantium, Carroll examines the critical backlash against Dickey's work.]

After I talk about this collection of book reviews and essays on modern poets—which seems to me the sanest, most invigorating and most fun to read since Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age (1953)—I want to try and put into perspective a nasty attempt at poetic fratricide in which James Dickey has been the target. Why I bother with such dirty literary linen is simple: I want everybody to read and enjoy Mr. Dickey without the distraction...

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Harry Morris (essay date April 1969)

SOURCE: Morris, Harry. “A Formal View of the Poetry of Dickey, Garrigue, and Simpson.” Sewanee Review 77, no. 2 (April 1969): 318-22.

[In the following excerpt, Morris provides a negative assessment of Poems, 1957-1967, calling the poems in the volume dull, awkward, and stylistically inferior.]

James Dickey, Jean Garrigue, and Louis Simpson are ready apparently for an assessment of their work to date; for each poet, the current book is a selection from all his past work plus a final section containing new poems.

Traditionally we have expected poets to develop their powers of observation, to give form to their utterance; to be concise and...

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George Lensing (review date spring 1970)

SOURCE: Lensing, George. A review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, by James Dickey. Carolina Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1970): 90-1.

[In the following essay, Lensing offers a negative review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy.]

When James Dickey's Poems 1957-1967 appeared three years ago, the poet found himself suddenly promoted to the front ranks of American versifiers: Louis Untermeyer described the volume as the “outstanding collection of one man's poems to appear in this decade,” while Peter Davison suggested that Dickey might well nudge his way onto the niche of eminence with Robert...

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Richard J. Calhoun (essay date June 1971)

SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J. “‘His Reason Argues with His Invention’: James Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.South Carolina Review 3, no. 2 (June 1971): 9-16.

[In the following essay, Calhoun surveys the weakness in Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.]

James Dickey's first novel, Deliverance, was such a phenomenal success that anything else he produced in 1970 must by comparison seem rather neglected. Early last year he published his sixth volume of poems, a slim paperback with one of the most ungainly titles in the history of American publishing—The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and...

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Stanley Plumly (review date July 1977)

SOURCE: Plumly, Stanley. A review of The Zodiac, by James Dickey. American Poetry Review 6, no. 4 (July 1977): 42-3.

[In the following unfavorable review, Plumly asserts that The Zodiac is “overwhelmed by its own ambition.”]

James Dickey ends his twelve-part, twelve-tiered poem of The Zodiac with a kind of nautical prayer.

                              Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat.
                              Come into one of these hands
                              Bringing quietness and the rare belief
                    That I can steer this strange craft to the morning
Land that sleeps in the universe on all...

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Linda Mizejewski (essay date summer 1978)

SOURCE: Mizejewski, Linda. “Shamanism Toward Confessionalism: James Dickey, Poet.” Georgia Review 32 (summer 1978): 409-19.

[In the following essay, Mizejewski explores the confessional poetry of The Zodiac, focusing on Dickey's poetic persona.]

Since the mid-sixties or so, one or two people at almost any English Department cocktail party have had a James Dickey story. Perhaps even more amazing than the stories themselves has been Dickey's mercurial quality that renders an anecdote from nearly every college reading and from so many personal encounters. After 1972, the stories became Jim Dickey-Burt Reynolds stories, and after January, 1977, there were tales...

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Turner Cassity (review date 1980)

SOURCE: Cassity, Turner. “Double Dutch.” Parnassus 8, no. 2 (1980): 177-93.

[In the following mixed review of The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac, Cassity questions stylistic elements of Dickey's poetry.]

If you write in lines so long that your book has to be printed sideways, it seems to me you might well reconsider your methods. However, James Dickey has always been the least succinct of poets, and here, in a grand horizontal sprawl, is The Strength of Fields, a collection of lyrics and of adaptations from other languages. Dickey writes with undiminished vigor, but I am not sure I can say this as praise. Intellectually, he is so seldom on...

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Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. “The Literary Criticism, Lately Neglected.” In James Dickey, pp. 124-35. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Calhoun and Hill discuss Dickey's reputation and work as a literary critic.]

THE “SUSPECT” IN POETRY

James Dickey's career as a literary critic began when he was poetry editor and reviewer for the Sewanee Review. There he developed something of a reputation as a “hatchet man” who deftly chopped down the reputations of poets he did not respect. Robert Penn Warren, later a friend and admirer, recalls: “When James Dickey came to my attention as a...

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Ronald Baughman (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “Deliverance.” In Understanding James Dickey, pp. 109-21. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Baughman explores the theme of renewal in Deliverance.]

How Dickey changes and forms again is dramatically demonstrated in his only novel to date, Deliverance. In this work his protagonist achieves the renewal—the deliverance—for which the writer has struggled throughout his poetry. The speaker is able to find a new order, a new connection, a new sense of real well-being that becomes his passionate affirmation of life. Because the economy of language required in poetry does not allow for...

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Monroe K. Spears (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “James Dickey as a Southern Visionary.” Virginia Quarterly Review 63, no. 1 (winter 1987): 110-23.

[In the following essay, Spears places Dickey and his work within the context of the Southern literary tradition.]

Some years ago James Dickey, who will be 64 next month, responded to an interviewer's question about the sense in which he was a Southern writer with the ringing declaration that “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” He would not want to feel that he was limited in any way by being a Southerner or was expected to “indulge in the kind of regional...

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William W. Starr (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Starr, William W. “Alnilam: James Dickey's Novel Explores Father and Son Relationships.” In The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations, edited by Ronald Baughman, pp. 258-62. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, which was initially published in 1987, Starr considers the major thematic concerns of Dickey's Alnilam.]

James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is definitely not another Deliverance, which created a storm of acclaim and readership when it appeared seventeen years ago.

But that's just fine with Dickey, author of two dozen literary works and holder...

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Angelin P. Brewer (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Brewer, Angelin P. “‘To Rise above Time’: The Mythic Hero in Dickey's Deliverance and Alnilam.James Dickey Newsletter 7, no. 1 (fall 1990): 9-14.

[In the following essay, Brewer perceives the storylines of Dickey's two novels as interpretations of the passage of the mythical hero as detailed in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.]

Ed Gentry and Frank Cahill, protagonists in James Dickey's novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987), are called to make a journey. The common pattern of these journeys depicts the three steps in the mythic hero's passage: a withdrawal from the real world, a penetration to a power...

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Ronald Schmitt (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Schmitt, Ronald. “Transformations of the Hero in James Dickey's Deliverance.James Dickey Newsletter 8, no. 1 (fall 1991): 9-16.

[In the following essay, Schmitt maintains that Dickey provides an ironic treatment of the mythical hero in his novel Deliverance.]

According to James Dickey himself, the source of the novel Deliverance was a 1949 review essay in the Kenyon Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman which mentions both Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces and Arnold Van Gennep's Les Rites de Passage (Eisiminger 53). According to Hyman, “… as students of myth we must separate from the world, penetrate to a source...

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Gordon Van Ness (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Van Ness, Gordon. “Other Prose: Jericho, God's Images, Wayfarer, and Southern Light.” In Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey, pp. 101-11. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House. 1992.

[In the following essay, Van Ness surveys the central thematic concerns of and the critical reaction to Dickey's nonfiction.]

In a 1974 article discussing his efforts and those of painter Hubert Shuptrine to produce a major book about the South, Dickey declares,

I want to write how it feels to be in this place, the South. The essence of it. The mood of it. How it feels to be there on the coast … to go there...

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Dave Smith (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “James Dickey's Motions.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 41-60.

[In the following essay, Smith views Dickey in the context of a Southern writer.]

With the death of Robert Penn Warren, the mantle of preeminent Southern poet seems destined to fall to James Dickey. Wendell Berry, Donald Justice, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and A. R. Ammons are all worthy candidates, but each has deemphasized a Southern identity in ways Dickey has not. Much has been written about James Dickey that is misinformed, silly, or plainly wrong, especially in the latter half of his career. The critical profile ranges from a dismissive, apparently political,...

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Ronald Baughman (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “James Dickey's Alnilam: Toward a True Center Point.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 173-79.

[In the following essay, Baughman examines the symbolic meaning of the settings in Alnilam.]

James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, concentrates on three major settings that serve as symbolic constructs within which the principal character pursues transformations in his life. The first setting, an Atlanta amusement park that Frank Cahill, the novel's protagonist, builds as a perverse version of the Garden of Eden, illustrates his fall from or rejection of human society—of family or other human relationships. The...

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Ernest Suarez (essay date winter-summer 1994-1995)

SOURCE: Suarez, Ernest. “Deliverance: Dickey's Original Screenplay.” Southern Quarterly 33, no. 2 (winter-summer 1994-1995): 161-69.

[In the following essay, Suarez juxtaposes Dickey's novel with the film version of Deliverance.]

James Dickey and director John Boorman battled over the making of Deliverance to the point that Dickey was asked to leave the set. To Dickey's chagrin, Boorman cut the original screenplay's first twenty-five pages, altered scenes and changed the film's ending in order to create a more commercially palatable product. After the film was finished, Boorman felt that he had influenced Dickey's product to the extent that he claimed...

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Martin Bidney (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's Deliverance.Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 4 (fall 1995): 389-405.

[In the following essay, Bidney underscores the relationship between Dickey's Deliverance and the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.]

I'd like to be some sort of bird, a migratory seabird like a tern or a wandering albatross. But … I'll have to keep trying to do it, to die and fly, by words.

—James Dickey, Self-Interviews 79

“I like to work my mind, such as it is,”...

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Ihab Hassan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Hassan, Ihab. “The Spirit of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.” In Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades, pp. 187-207. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995..

[In the following excerpt, Hassan contrasts the two main characters—Ed and Lewis—in Dickey's novel Deliverance.]

In contrast to Bellow's and Mailer's fictions, James Dickey's Deliverance (1970) seems less a quest than a brutal tale of survival. The reader may wonder: deliverance from what? From moral complacencies, social pieties, perhaps from civilization itself? The clues are scattered, and in one place they become nearly explicit. Making love to his wife on the morning...

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Keen Butterworth (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Butterworth, Keen. “The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance.Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 69-78.

[In the following essay, Butterworth provides an interpretation of the psychological aspects of Deliverance.]

On the dust jacket of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance an eye peers out through a surrounding cluster of hemlock fronds. It is not the poison hemlock shrub of Socrates, but the benign water-loving hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) of our Appalachian forests. It would grow in abundance, probably in virgin stands, along the Cahulawassee, the fictional river on which most of the story of...

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Terry Thompson (essay date December 1998)

SOURCE: Thompson, Terry. “Cahulawassee: The Bend Sinister River in Deliverance.English Language Notes 36, no. 2 (December 1998): 44-8.

[In the following essay, Thompson considers the “heraldic symbolism” found in Dickey's Deliverance.]

Originally published in 1970, Deliverance, James Dickey's first and most popular novel, has been much lauded for its poetic description of nature and for its vivid narration of a harrowing canoe trip down a wild Georgia river by four would-be outdoorsmen from Atlanta whose adventurous weekend getaway quickly turns into a bloody nightmare once they discover “the primordial dangers of the river.”1...

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R. S. Gwynn (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Gwynn, R. S. “Subject Matters.” Hudson Review 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 323-31.

[In the following excerpt, Gwynn compares Dickey's work and declining critical reputation to that of the Georgian poets, especially Rupert Brooke.]

No group of poets has suffered worse at the hands of posterity than the Georgians, whose poems were collected in five eponymous semiannual anthologies. The last of these had the misfortune to appear in the same year as The Waste Land, and after Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and Middleton Murry had finished mopping the floor with it, the Georgians were consigned to the back matter of the history of modernism. Of their number, none has...

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Henry Hart (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: The World as a Lie.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 1 (winter 2000): 93-106.

[In the following essay, Hart addresses the problems in researching Dickey's life story, asserting that “nearly everything Dickey said about his life was an embroidery of fiction and fact.”]

When James Dickey died on January 19, 1997, most of the obituaries—from the six-column one in the New York Times to the shorter ones in Time and Newsweek—paid tribute to the big, life-loving, hard-drinking bard who had written the best-selling novel Deliverance. The eulogists pointed out that he had been a star college football player, a...

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Jeffrey Meyers (review date May 2000)

SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. A review of Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, by James Dickey. New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 69.

[In the following unfavorable assessment, Meyers derides the errors in and superficial treatment of Dickey's collected letters.]

Virgil's Aeneas, weeping over the frescoes that depict the fall of Troy, voices the tragic sense of life that animates all poets: “Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.” In “Resolution and Independence,” Wordsworth describes the wrenching extremes of a poet's moods:

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As...

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Henry Hart (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: Journey to War.” Southern Review 36, no. 2 (spring 2000): 348-77.

[In the following essay, Hart investigates the ways in which Dickey's wartime experiences affected his poetic sensibility.]

During the spring of 1945, Radar Officer James Dickey was hard at work composing poems and reading Louis Untermeyer's poetry anthology and Shakespeare's sonnets. He paid particular attention to Untermeyer's selection of Ernest Dowson's delicate, antiquated lyrics, and tried to imitate them in his own poems. He liked Dowson so much that he asked his mother on May 29 to find his Dowson collection, copy out several poems, and send them to him. He...

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